TAIPEI: Taiwan wants dialogue with China but cannot accept its proposal for "one country, two systems", President Tsai Ing-wen said on Wednesday (May 20), calling for both sides to find a way to coexist.
In a speech after being sworn in for her second and final term in office, Tsai said relations between Taiwan and China had reached an historic turning point.
"Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences," she said.
Reacting after Tsai's speech, a senior Chinese official was quoted in state media outlet Xinhua as saying Beijing would "never tolerate" the island's separation.
Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party won January's presidential and parliamentary elections by a landslide, vowing to stand up to China, which claims Taiwan as its own and says it would be brought under Beijing's control by force if needed.
"Here, I want to reiterate the words 'peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue'. We will not accept the Beijing authorities' use of 'one country, two systems' to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo. We stand fast by this principle," Tsai said.
China uses the "one country, two systems" policy, which is supposed to guarantee a high degree of autonomy, to run the former British colony of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It has offered it to Taiwan, though all major Taiwanese parties have rejected it.
Tsai says Taiwan is an independent state called the Republic of China, and does not want to be part of the People's Republic of China governed by Beijing.
Taiwan has been ruled separately from the mainland since 1949 after the Nationalists lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to the island to set up a rival government.
For decades, Taiwan's leaders - and many voters - saw themselves as the true representatives for all of China, even as the vast majority of nations switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
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But as the island moved from an autocracy to a democracy from the 1990s, a distinct Taiwanese identity has emerged with many no longer seeking any kind of reunification with China.
That has caused growing alarm in Beijing, which says any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would cross a red line.
TAIWAN OPEN TO DIALOGUE
China has stepped up its military drills near Taiwan since Tsai's re-election, flying fighter jets into the island's air space and sailing warships around Taiwan.
Tsai said Taiwan has made the greatest effort to maintain peace and stability in the narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the democratic island from its autocratic neighbour China.
"We will continue these efforts, and we are willing to engage in dialogue with China and make more concrete contributions to regional security," she added, speaking in the garden of the old Japanese governor's house in Taipei, in front of a socially-distanced audience of officials and diplomats.
Tsai said that Taiwan will continue its fight to participate in international organisations, and "bolster ties with the United States, Japan, Europe, and other like-minded countries".
Taiwan has also accused China of exerting pressure to keep Taiwan out of the World Health Organization (WHO). China says Taiwan is only a Chinese province with no right to the trappings of a state.
CHINA AND US REACT
After Tsai's speech, China's Xinhua news agency published comments from a top official saying Beijing would "never tolerate" the island's separation.
"We have ... sufficient ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Ma Xiaoguang, from the Taiwan Affairs Office, was quoted as saying.
China cut off a formal talks mechanism with Taiwan in 2016 after Tsai won the election. China views Tsai as a separatist bent on formal independence for Taiwan.
Tsai's position is Taiwan does not need to declare independence because it already controls its own affairs.
Ma also criticised the interference of "external forces", a reference to the US, which diplomatically recognises Beijing but remains a military ally of Taiwan.
The Trump administration has strongly backed Taiwan, becoming another source of tension between Washington and Beijing.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his congratulations to Tsai on Tuesday, praising her "courage and vision in leading Taiwan's vibrant democracy", in a rare high-level message from Washington to Taiwan's government.
China's foreign ministry said Pompeo had seriously damaged the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and China-US relations by making a congratulatory statement to Tsai.
China will take necessary countermeasures and the US must bear the consequences, the ministry said in a statement.
Tsai's inauguration ceremony came as her administration basks in the glow of its successful coronavirus response.
Despite its close proximity and economic links with China, the island has managed to contain its own outbreak to more than 400 infections and seven deaths.
It has been held up as a model by epidemiologists and has used aid shipments of protective equipment to win overseas praise.
Wednesday's ceremony in Taipei was a deliberately stripped-down affair with crowds of supporters asked to stay away and dignitaries sat in chairs kept 1.5m apart.
"Taiwan's name has appeared in headlines around the world, thanks to our successful containment of the coronavirus outbreak," Tsai said.